ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Is Russian President Vladimir Putin angling for a way to stay president for life? That is a live question in Russia after Putin came out today in support of changing the law on presidential term limits, changes that would allow him to run for a fifth or even a sixth term. Our co-host Mary Louise Kelly picks it up from here.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: So here's the deal. Putin's current term expires in 2024. The constitution in its current form says then, he has to stand down. But if the law is changed, Putin could theoretically stay in the Kremlin until 2036. I was curious what Fiona Hill makes of this. She is a leading expert on Vladimir Putin. She was President Trump's top Russia advisor until last year. You'll recognize her name and her voice if you followed the impeachment hearings last fall. When we called her today, Fiona Hill told me this move by Putin is about promoting stability, predictability and also seizing an opportune moment.
FIONA HILL: It's very interesting that this was announced against the backdrop of a spat between Russia and Saudi Arabia and other members of OPEC about oil production cuts - now, obviously, against the backdrop of the pandemic of coronavirus, which is roiling markets and...
KELLY: You think this timing is not a coincidence, that this is Vladimir Putin signaling stability. I'm here to stay at a very moment when, as you note, the oil markets and stock markets overall have been very worried.
HILL: I think the timing is definitely linked to this. And Putin has become the wild card in his own system. If he goes, it seems destabilizing, and this seems like an effort to kind of put off the inevitable. He surely won't live forever, and at some point, as we move forward, even if it's beyond 2024 and we get closer to 2036, we'll be playing the same game again of how the whole system could be destabilized if there isn't a clear succession plan put in place.
KELLY: Right. Almost - the longer he stays on, the more destabilizing it will be when, eventually, he goes. But is your reading that he intends to stay in the Kremlin for life, that there is no plan for a coda to being president?
HILL: I think he's testing things out, and I think what they're going to be looking at now is, what are people's reactions - not just outside when we're all distracted by coronavirus and, in many cases, our own political campaign season, but also, what their action is going to be across all of the elites - not just those who are in the Duma but businesspeople, people who are vested in the system or have some stake in the system but also the Russian population writ large?
KELLY: But does it even matter on a certain level? I mean, is there any doubt in your mind that, if Putin wants to stay president, that he will? Is there really any question mark?
HILL: Well, there is a bit of a question mark on all of this. I mean, right now there's an April 22 schedule vote. If the turnout is really low, then the question would be about the legitimacy of that vote over the longer time and also in polling because there's constant polling of the population to take the temperature, take the mood and to look for any kind of signals of trouble. And perhaps if, in focus groups and other polling outreach, the government sees that there's quite a bit of discontent about this, they may have to modulate the plan. So Putin is not the dictator that he's often accused of being. He has to be very sensitive to public opinion.
KELLY: Which prompted me to wonder, what about public opinion here, with another U.S. election looming and Americans once again tracking Russian influence and efforts to sow discord? Are you worried that American politicians are echoing that line from Russia, that American politicians are helping to spread Russian propaganda?
HILL: I'm extremely worried about it, as I said in the testimony back in November that when - often, people do this for their own domestic political purposes. But really, what it ends up doing is doing the work for the Russians - not just the Russians or their adversaries for them. They don't invent our divisions. They don't create the partisan divides. And when we try to do this negative political research on opposing candidates and we treat every political race like some kind of version of "Mortal Kombat" in which we have to destroy our enemy, then it makes it extremely easy for the Russians to bring everyone down.
KELLY: This is a pointed question, but let me follow up by asking, are you worried that the president of the United States is helping Russia by helping to spread Russian propaganda?
HILL: I will be frank that I think that everybody is at risk of helping the Russians. People on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all the commentators that appear on our national television trying to score points - we're all in this together, Mary Louise. It's not just one person, and that's why I've been very careful right from the very beginning to not point criticism in just one direction or just a few directions here. We're all in this.
KELLY: And just to be clear, you're saying that this goes all the way down but also all the way up, including the president.
HILL: It goes across the board, and I have to say that it's in the media as well. So I think we have to have a step back from this and just look very carefully about how this takes place.
KELLY: What did you make, by the way, of the departure of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and others who testified in the impeachment hearings and were seen as disloyal?
HILL: I'd prefer not to start talking about this in the context of what we're talking about today, which is about Vladimir Putin. I just want to say that the Russians watch very carefully what's happening in our government. They're looking for any kind of sense of vulnerability and weakness, and that's not something specific to any of these individuals that you've said. But, you know, the more there is turnover, the more advantageous to Russia because they don't have that much turnover. So Russia has the advantage here of incumbency in terms of highly skilled individuals that have worked together for a long time and know what they're doing together.
KELLY: There are so many unanswered questions about President Trump and Russia, why he has repeatedly taken Vladimir Putin's word above that of his own intelligence chiefs. Understanding that you cannot discuss classified information, is there anything Americans should know about that relationship, anything they should know as they weigh whether to re-elect President Trump to a second term?
HILL: Look. I've said this in other settings - that a lot of this problem is in our own domestic politics. We have politicized the issue of Russia to a point that we can't have a sensible conversation about it. And it's rooted, obviously, in 2016 and the perception that somehow, our current president is not legitimate. And that, for Russia or the Russian security services, is a massive success.
KELLY: And I suppose - I ask the question not in the service of wanting to fuel that fight in any way, but as you know, there's been so much discussion over - there's all this smoke. Is there a fire?
HILL: That is exactly the essence of Russian kompromat as well. The Russians like to think - make everybody think that there's fire for everyone. And they also know that, for people like myself and many others who've been privy to classified information, that we can't talk about that. So they've got us. And every single time that I'm asked that question, I groan inwardly because I know that, yet again, it's going to come right back around again to the fact that most people can't answer it.
KELLY: Well, I ask you not to make you groan but because, you know, the other pushback against kompromat is facts. And it's the job of journalists...
HILL: That's right. Some of the things that...
KELLY: ...To try to ferret them out.
HILL: You know, there's, again, a lot of stuff going on in our own domestic environment that makes it difficult to get those facts out. And we have famously found ourselves in this realm that's described as alternative facts. So no matter how much factual information I can put forward, there'll still be large groups of people who won't believe a word of it.
KELLY: Yeah. Fiona Hill, thank you.
HILL: Oh, thank you so much, Mary Louise. Thank you.
KELLY: She was President Trump's top advisor on Russia. She's now back at the Brookings Institution. The book she co-authored is titled "Mr. Putin: Operative In The Kremlin."
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